An Overview,* continued

Steiner suggested that the three domains of society needed to be relatively independent of one another to be able continually to check, balance, and correct one another for the sake of ongoing progress. He argued that such independence requires liberty in the cultural realm, equality and democracy in the political realm, and freely self-organizing cooperative businesses in the economic realm. To understand why cooperative capitalism is more likely than competitive capitalism to keep the economy and state distinct, read the section four paragraphs down, under the heading "Cooperative economic life."

Actual progress toward a cooperative economy is exemplified by the Rudolf Steiner Foundation's involvement in the U.S. (and international) movement in support of legislation permitting the creation of B-corporations, a new, socially responsible kind of business model. The B-corporation will be further discussed below.

Independence of the cultural and political realms from each other
Examples: A government should not be able to control culture; i.e., how people think, learn, or worship. A particular religion or ideology should not control the levers of the State. Steiner held that pluralism and freedom were the ideal for education and cultural life. Concerning children, Steiner held that all families, not just those with economic means, should be enabled to choose freely among and set up a wide variety of independent, non-government schools from kindergarten through high school. Steiner was a supporter of educational freedom, but was flexible, and understood that a few legal restrictions on schools (such as health and safety laws), provided they were kept to an absolute minimum, would be necessary and justified. Neither the content nor the form of education should be administered or controlled by the State.

Independence of the cultural and economic realms from each other
Examples: The fact that places of worship do not make the ability to enter and participate depend on the ability to pay, and that (some) libraries and museums are open free of charge, is in tune with Steiner’s notion of a separation between the cultural and economic realms. Efforts to protect scientific research from commercial manipulation are also in tune with the idea. In the same spirit, Steiner held that all families, not just those with the economic means, should have freedom of choice in education and access to independent, non-government schools for their children.

Independence of the political and economic realms from each other
Examples: People and businesses should be prevented from buying politicians and laws. A politician shouldn’t be able to parlay his political position into riches earned by doing favors for businessmen. Slavery is unjust, because it takes something political, a person’s inalienable rights, and absorbs them into the economic process of buying and selling. Steiner said, "In the old days, there were slaves. The entire man was sold as commodity... Today, capitalism is the power through which still a remnant of the human being—his labor power—is stamped with the character of a commodity." Yet Steiner held that the solution that state socialism gives to this problem only makes it worse.

Cooperative economic life
Steiner advocated cooperative forms of capitalism, or what might today be called stakeholder capitalism. He thought that conventional shareholder capitalism and state socialism, though in different ways, tend to absorb the State and human rights into the economic process and transform laws into mere commodities. Steiner rejected state socialism because of that, but also because he believed it reduces the vitality of the economic process.

Yet Steiner disagrees with the kind of libertarian view that holds that the State and the economy are kept apart when there is absolute economic competition. According to Steiner's view, under absolute competition, the most dominant economic forces tend to corrupt and take over the State, in that respect merging State and economy. Second, the State tends to fight back counter-productively under such circumstances by increasingly taking over the economy and merging with it, in a mostly doomed attempt to ameliorate the sense of injustice that emerges when special economic interests take over the State.

By contrast, Steiner held that uncoerced, freely self-organizing forms of cooperative economic life, in a society where there is freedom of speech, of culture, and of religion, will 1) make State intervention in the economy less necessary or called for, and 2) will tend to permit economic interests of a broader, more public-spirited sort to play a greater role in relations extending from the economy to the State. Those two changes would keep State and economy apart more than could absolute economic competition in which economic special interests corrupt the State and make it too often resemble a mere appendage of the economy. In Steiner's view, the latter corruption leads in turn to a pendulum swing in the opposite direction: government forces, sometimes with the best of intentions, seek to turn the economy increasingly into a mere appendage of the State. State and economy thus merge through an endless iteration of pendulum swings from one to the other, increasingly becoming corrupt appendages of each other.

Steiner held that State and economy, given increased separateness through a self-organizing and voluntarily more cooperative economic life, can increasingly check, balance, and correct each other for the sake of continual human progress. In Steiner’s view, the place of the State, vis-a-vis the self-organizing, cooperative economy, is not to own the economy or run it, but to regulate/deregulate it, enforce laws, and protect human rights as determined by the state's open democratic process. Steiner emphasized that none of these proposals would be successful unless the cultural sphere of society maintained and increased its own freedom and autonomy vis-a-vis economic and State power. Nothing would work without spiritual, cultural, and educational freedom.

A new kind of corporation: the B-corp or benefit corp
An example of Steiner’s students working toward cooperative capitalism is the RSF Social Finance organization. Among other things, RSF Social Finance has been a supporter of B Lab, a company that is helping drive the national movement in the U.S. for legislation permitting the creation of B-corporations. Such legislation has been passed so far in a dozen or more U.S. states, and is being worked on in many more.

The B-corporation, or benefit corporation, is a new corporate form designed for for-profit entities that want to consider the good of the society and the environment in addition to profit in their decision making process. Benefit corporations are legally protected from lawsuits charging a failure to make maximization of shareholder value the only priority. The additional accountability provisions found in a benefit corporation require the director and officers to consider the impact of their decisions not only on shareholders but also on society and the environment. The benefit corporation seeks to merge the idealism of non-profits with the economic productivity of the profit motive.

When Ben & Jerrys sold their socially responsible ice cream company, the law on maximizing shareholder value left them little other choice than to sell to whoever came along as the highest bidder. By contrast, the benefit corporation's legal form, if Ben and Jerry's could have adopted it at the time, would have permitted and required them to consider a broader set of concerns as well as shareholder value.

Economic support for culture
A central idea in social threefolding is that the economic sphere should donate funds to support cultural and educational institutions that are independent of the State. As businesses become profitable through the exercise of creativity and inspiration, and a society's culture is a key source of its creativity and inspiration, returning a portion of the profits made by business to independent cultural initiatives can act as a kind of seed money to stimulate further creative growth.

In this view, taxes sometimes serve as an unhealthy form of forced donation which artificially redirect businesses' profits. Since taxes are controlled by the state, cultural initiatives supported by taxes readily fall under government control, rather than retaining their independence. Steiner believed in educational freedom and choice, and one of his ideals was that the economic sector might eventually create scholarship funds that would permit all families to choose freely from (and set up) a wide variety of independent, non-government schools for their children.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Rudolf Steiner held that the French Revolution's slogan, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, expressed in an unconscious way the distinct needs of the three social spheres at the present time:
  • Liberty in cultural life (education, science, art, religion, media),
  • Equality in a democratic political life, and
  • Uncoerced solidarity in economic life.
According to Steiner, these values, each one applied to its proper social realm, would tend to keep the cultural, economic and political realms from merging unjustly. The result would be a society-wide separation of powers. In the past, according to Steiner, lack of autonomy had tended to make each sphere merge in a domineering or servile way with the others. Steiner points toward social conditions where domination by any of the three spheres is increasingly reduced, so that theocracy, state socialism, and traditional forms of capitalism might all be gradually transcended.

The threefold nature of the human being
Steiner taught that threefold social order arises from the threefold nature of the human being: 1) nerves/senses system centered in the head, 2) rhythmic heart-lungs system centered in the chest, and 3) metabolic/limb system centered in the viscera. These three systems are not spatially divisible. They are distinct yet mingling forms of activity, and are present to one degree or another everywhere within each other and in the body. For a fuller explanation of the threefoldness of the human organism, one might read relevant parts of Steiner's Riddles of the Soul. Steiner spent decades developing an extremely rich image of the spiritual and physical threefold human being.

A reform process
For Steiner, social threefolding was not a social recipe or blueprint. It could not be "implemented" like some utopian program in a day, a decade, or even a century. It was a complex open process that began thousands of years ago and that he thought was likely to continue for some centuries to come. At the same time, he clearly believed that peaceful efforts by cooperating individuals could significantly hasten a more widespread understanding and acceptance of the threefold nature of social life.

Note on "social threefolding"
It would be reasonable to assume that the purpose of "social threefolding" reform activities is to make society threefold. Yet that would be an incomplete view. Rudolf Steiner held that, fundamentally, human social life is threefold. Thus social threefolding merely seeks to bring old and new institutions and practices increasingly into accord with society's inherently threefold character.

*Except for a paragraph and sentence in the section above called "Economic support for culture," I wrote the above overview. I originally contributed much of this overview to an article on "Social Threefolding" at Wikipedia. For a more extensive introduction to social threefolding, one can read Towards Social Renewal, Steiner's first book devoted to questions about social order.
-- Edward Udell

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